Archive for Dave Kehr

William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.

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In Every City There Is One Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2016 by dcairns

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One of the standouts at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s series of films produced by Carl Laemmle Jnr., lesser-known movies excluding the James Whale horror masterpieces. Pal Fejos’ LONESOME was likewise left out in favour of the slightly more obscure, flawed BROADWAY and also the bizarre, grotesque and highly entertaining KING OF JAZZ, which Fejos worked on in some unspecified capacity (perhaps explaining why both those films feature outsize figures Godzilla-cavorting down miniature New York streets). Dave mentioned, though, that LONESOME is the real masterpiece, and I remembered that I own Criterion’s Blu-ray and hadn’t watched it.

BROADWAY is a tricky early talkie, given the stilted nature of much of the dialogue delivery (“new-minted clichés” as Mark Fuller put it). It’s a backstage musical gangster story, in which the musical numbers, staged on a cavernous sound stage, were shoehorned in at Fejos’ behest. Spectacular in themselves, thanks to the towering sets and the elaborate crane shots, they slow the narrative down even further than the flaccid speech. Any movie where Evelyn Brent gives the best performance is arguably in trouble. But Fiona was very taken with the slow-talking detective, Thomas E. Jackson, who actually drawls like he’s parodying an early talkie. It’s disconcerting to find Jackson actually had a long career, and was seen in other film. Hell, it’s disconcerting to find he wasn’t a hallucination.

The movie is a combination of pleasures and irritants, and in the irritant camp fall the two lead performances. Both characters are written as dopes — Merna Kennedy redeemed herself elsewhere in the fest with a spirited turn in LAUGHTER IN HELL (“He’s ma maan!”)– Glenn Tryon redeems himself in LONESOME. In BROADWAY he’s so whiny, insecure, yet at the same time obnoxiously egotistical, like a tap-dancing George Costanza, it actually takes a while to get used to how effective he is in LONESOME.

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One of the delights of Bologna was seeing actors in contrasting roles — Pat O’Brien yaps a very precise Lee Tracy impersonation in THE FRONT PAGE, yet walks through LAUGHTER IN HELL like a man in a dream (he can maintain audience sympathy after committing a double murder because his somnambular perf makes clear that he isn’t responsible — for anything), and see above for Merna Kennedy’s development. Barbara Kent isn’t so versatile, playing ingenues in both LONESOME and FLESH AND THE DEVIL. She’s cuter in modern dress, though, and can hold more interest when not competing with a young, newly-styled Garbo.

LONESOME experiments with model shots, location filming, camera movement, sound, dialogue and colour — there’s stencil painting and some kind of dye process which tints the highlights one hue and the shadows another. Fejos is running amuck, and the slender story is the perfect vehicle for such stylistic exuberance. Think THE LAST LAUGH: small-scale stories can sometimes support colossal artistic ebullience.

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LONESOME is a magnificent one-off — I wish the part-soundie era had lasted another five years. When the two leads abruptly start speaking to each other in live sound on the beach at Coney Island, the jarring transition from one medium to another is beautiful. You can’t get that in a perfect film, only in a makeshift masterpiece like this one, a superproduction assembled on shifting sands. When the film reaches its tearful conclusion, sudden nitrate decomposition afflicts the footage, with PERFECT artistic timing — it drives home the fragility of what we’ve been watching.

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Are you now or have you ever been a romantic?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2008 by dcairns

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THE RIVER.

One of my favourite books, or two of them, is Richard Roud’s two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary – The Major Filmmakers, which has a nice piece on Borzage by Andrew Sarris, probably the first thing I ever read on F.B. I suspect I first turned to it after seeing those awesome clips from SEVENTH HEAVEN in A Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which blew my mind long before I was able to see MOONRISE.

Sarris quotes “David” (more usually Dave) Kehr as saying “MOONRISE [1948] is the last film Frank Borzage completed before the blacklist forced him into a ten-year period of inactivity.” (Borzage in fact directed some television in 1955 and 1956.) This remark, in the Spring 1973 issue of Focus! was apparently the first mention of Borzage in connection with blacklisting. It makes sense though, since Borzage was the embodiment of what HUAC called “premature anti-fascism”, having attacked the Nazi party in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?, THREE COMRADES and THE MORTAL STORM, an informal trilogy covering the history of Germany between the wars, and STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, an innocent-seeming morale-booster features an appearance by some, apparently real, Russian soldiers who are celebrated (by Sam Jaffe) for having “exterminated” the Germans at Stalingrad. (An incredibly glamorous fighting woman grimly intones that should she face another German, “My hand will not tremble.”) This is certainly the kind of thing that could cause a filmmaker career problems further down the line.

Annoyingly, confirmation of Kehr’s claim is thin on the ground — even Sarris seems unsure how seriously to take it, and the Disgustingly Expensive Borzage Book seems to dismiss the idea. It’s been suggested that Borzage may have been banned from the studios because of his drinking problem rather than his political affiliations — more blackballed than blacklisted. There’s also the possibility that illness, particularly depression, stopped Borzage working, and the blacklisting was a figment of Kehr’s imagination or a glitch in his research.

I hoped to confirm Kehr’s remark, using the excellent documentary series THE RKO STORY — I clearly recalled Borzage’s name appearing on an actual blacklist. A black list. A list that is positively black. Legal proof, I thought. A frame grab of a DVD-R of a 16mm film of a document — what could be more legally binding?

Strangely though, when I scanned the show to find the name, it wasn’t there. A hallucination. A figment. Odd!

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Maybe somebody could ask Dave Kehr if he has further information?